Before European Contact

Gender-variant people were viewed in different ways. Many tribes saw them as revered spiritual leaders, great sources of knowledge or healers. Still others saw them as regular members of the community, neither marginalized, nor exceptional. But as author Will Roscoe points out: “Two-Spirit roles were one of the most widely shared features of North American societies. They have been documented in every region of the continent, among speakers of every major language group and in every kind of tribe, from the hunters of the Arctic, to the foragers of native California, the Pueblo farmers of the Southwest and the nomadic warrior-hunters of the Great Plains.”

Gender, culture and language were complex and rarely uniform. Because these Native understandings were orally handed down through generations, most written histories of gender-variant people begin with a European misunderstanding. Still, most ancient languages had terms for them within Indigenous societies. Here are a few:


tayagigux’: “Woman transformed into a man.”
ayagigux’: “Man transformed into a woman.”


ninauh-oskitsi-pahpyaki: “Manly-hearted-woman.”
ááwowáakii: “A male homosexual.”
a’yai-kik-ahsi: “Acts like a woman.”


heemaneh: “A cross-gender or third gender person, typically a male-bodied person who takes on the roles and duties of a woman.”


iskwêw ka-napêwayat, ᐃᐢᑵᐤ ᑲ ᓇᐯᐘᔭᐟ: “A woman who dresses as a man.”
napêw iskwêwisêhot, ᓇᐯᐤ ᐃᐢᑵᐏᓭᐦᐅᐟ: “A man who dresses as a woman.”
napêhkân, ᓈᐯᐦᑳᐣ: “One who acts/lives as a man.”
iskwêhkân, ᐃᐢᑵᐦᑳᐣ: “One who acts/lives as a woman.”


batée: “Trans women and homosexual males.”


wíŋkte: “Contraction of an older Lakota word, Winyanktehca, meaning ‘wants to be like a woman.’”


nádleeh (also given as nádleehi): “One who is transformed” or “one who changes.”


ininiikaazo: “Women who functioned as men” or “one who endeavors to be like a man.”
ikwekaazo: “Men who chose to function as women” or “one who endeavors to be like a woman.”


tida wena: “Twisted women.”


lhamana: “Men who at times may also take on the social and ceremonial roles performed by women in their culture.”